An ear splitting loud explosion and sounds of hail on the roof and the shop windows. The building vibrated. A gust of wind kicked open the curtains. I’m on my computer, wrapped in a towel, writing about a lovely day I had in the mountains and there’s bum fluff and dust floating around the room.
The hotel felt as if it was under siege. I ran to the window. A few Malaysian tourists, with their families, poke their heads out through the windows too. We don’t know what’s happened. There’s talk a power line has exploded. The explosion was too loud.
A motorbike bomb? I thought it was something bigger. I thought it was a car bomb. Do I get dressed and fuck off out of the hotel, or just run outside with a skimpy towel on? I throw my clothes on, grab the little point and shoot camera and run outside. This was around 4 pm. There’d been no warning, no electricity going down, just a loud, loud noise.
Plumes of smoke rose from a building in the next street, the main drag of hotels and bars and karioke joints for the Malay tourists. They’re the only tourists who come here. Everyone was standing still, pointing at it, and speculating. Everyone had been drilled. When one bomb goes off, another one will follow.
I walked down a side alley to the street where buildings were up in flames. Residents were streaming from their buildings to the streets, yelling and screaming. A soldier is running, piggybacking a crippled man away from carnage forty meters down the road. There’s flames, burning, debris, water, solders running back and forth and emergency workers, all working together to save whoever they can.
Emergency workers carry an old lady on a stretcher from an apartment to an ambulance through a street choked with smoke. That’s what the dust in my room was, ash. Car tyres are burning, and fire engines are dousing the buildings on fire. That was the 7-11, the Holiday Hill Hotel is on fire too. A teenager is in hysterics, crying and repeating something over and over. She’d seen the carnage when the bomb exploded opposite her apartment. She probably had perforated eardrums as well.
Soldiers are ordering the bystanders back. One shouted, “Another bomb might explode!” Another yelled, urgency in his plea, “Get back, there could be a bomb in those bins! “A shop owner ran to four large green bins on the roadside, checked each bin, satisfied himself there was no bomb inside.
I went back to the hotel. The karioke bar next door is still open for business and punters are still lining up for a drink and a song. The owner of my hotel wanted to know what was going on. He wasn’t stupid enough to walk outside. He asked was I happy. I said I wasn’t that happy. He was dealing with the shocked look on my face. I was running on pure adrenaline. I showed him a photo, one of the bonnet of a car lying in a side street.
Twenty minutes later, after tweeting what I had, I went back. I followed a back street to within ten meters of where the bomb went off. The front chassis of a car with only two wheels. The skeleton of the car was all that remained. The 7-11 was gone. The main street where the bomb went off is cordoned off. Military, border police and police are everywhere.
At Happy Foot massage, I saw tiny children’s slippers. How can you bomb a Happy Foot massage? How could you spend hours putting a bomb together, knowing that what you are doing will turn its victims into minced meat? What drives people to do it?
On the way back, I chatted to other people in the street. They had collected pellets from the explosion of the car bomb that scattered metal pellets many blocks away. Another guy had collected a piece of shrapnel. It’s a tragedy, and only three days before the end of Ramadan. Only a few brave street stalls remain open. All the 7-11’s are closed. The staff are lovely people to chat too and they are always the victims.
No one expected this bomb today. The last one went off in 2005. It seems very well timed. Behind the Holiday Hill Hotel is another big hotel, another target. They are in the karaoke precinct. It was a Friday. The weekends are busy with Malaysian tourists. People on the street told me a few Malaysians were drinking a beer outside the hotel where the bomb went off. The insurgents don’t like beer bars, or the Malaysian tourists who frequent these joints.
A group of Malaysian tourists take a photo of a soldier. Another group walk down the road that’s blocked off, towards their hotel. I go back to my hotel too. The total tally today is 2 dead and 40 injured. More statistics, over 6000 deaths, and 15 000 injuries in the last decade here in the Deep South. Their deaths seem so pointless.
The headlines have just become real for me. One man on the street told me one of the dead was most likely the som tum lady. “She has a stall outside the hotel that was bombed.” He’s playing around with shrapnel he picked up. He’s in shock too. To read about this in the papers is one thing but to experience it is another.
The long night begins. I’m wired. I can’t sleep. My heart is pounding. There’s been a dry taste in my mouth ever since the first ash blew in. I wonder if it’s fertiliser. I’m on Twitter. Close friends are telling me get out, it’s a not a place to be hanging around, they say. I look at Google maps. Seven kilometres to the border through forests and villages. I’ll wait till the morning.
A close friend advises me to not to disclose my location, to stay where I am tonight. “Don’t communicate by telephone or anything but email. Everything is monitored,” he cautions. “You might have upset the military, and the insurgents might not be happy with you either.” He closed off with “Shut your curtains, leave the bathroom light on, and don’t sleep near the window.” Safety precautions when you are in an industrial zone.
I close the curtains. An umbrella is turned upside down on the street below. The world has been turned upside down for the people here. They can’t escape but I can. For them life goes on. Their spirits are hard to break this part of the world. I remember the words of an Islamic street seller. “We must fight,” she said. She means to continue on with ordinary life and not let a bomb stop her from feeding her family.